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Vol. XVI • 1994

Biological Evolution and Modern Literature
Jerry Bergman

A survey of Western literature up to the middle 1800s finds that the vast majority contained religious or quasi religious themes (Thrall and Hibbard 1936). Variations on the Prodigal Son theme were common though often disguised. One of the best selling hooks of all time, Pilgrims Progress, has an overtly religious theme-a worldly man finds religion, and learns that only therein can eternal happiness be achieved. The rise of Darwinian evolution saw a clear change in the religious undercurrent in popular literature: not only were far fewer books religious, but the central theme and values extolled changed drastically. The new theme, either openly or covertly, became the struggle of the strong, often the good, against the weak. Pure strength, a new unfeeling manliness, and virility were openly valued. A major form of literary genre today is a variation of this theme known as the "rags to riches" story. Even true stories that highlight the rags to riches theme, such as biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, etc., are still popular today. They are commonly seen as character building, even inspirational.

From Darwin's time forward, the theme in literature became not only the struggle of the fit (and the hero was often obviously more fit), but the glorifying of virile men who were successful in conquering women and life by brain and brawn. Especially in early film, heroes were usually perfect specimens, better looking and taller than average, and rarely displaying feelings or weakness. Then there are the enormously popular super-heroes, Batman, Superman, Dick Tracy, not to mention James Bond. The thread common to all is that they are evolutionarily superior.

   An Illustration of This Change

The survival of the fittest theme became prominent in literature after 1850, while the survival of the most devout and humble was common in pre-1850 literature. For example, The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s, is oriented towards religious values. In Chaucer and much of the literature that followed, religion plays a predominate, if not central role. Illustrative of the literature after Darwin is Beach of Falesa, a Robert Lewis Stephenson story set on a South Sea island. The work was, in fact, written on a South Sea island when Stephenson was seeking a better climate for his health. The characters fit well into the new view of the world brought about by Darwin. The natives were primitive, superstitious and gullible. The traders were crude, treacherous, and unscrupulous-and they had to be to survive in their business. The missionaries were enthusiastic and endeavored to help, hut their zeal was misguided because they held to their own brand of superstition and thus did more harm than good. The hero is Wiltshire, a tough, courageous man, with a basic decency that stood in marked contrast to those around him. Wiltshire did not passively accept the environment, but dynamically showed his physical and mental superiority and aggressively triumphed against it.

The Darwinian world view is often expressed in post-1850 poetry. English novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) in his poem Hop reflects on the loss of his orthodox Christian faith. In the poem, he concludes that it is no better to become the subject of a conscious scorn by a known but vengeful god than to be the subject of natural selection. He concludes that God is the chance force that operates in a world that we can neither understand nor control except in a small way In many of Hardy's novels and poems, the struggle of humans against the forces of nature, chance, and personal suffering are prominent. He develops a less pessimistic philosophy in his Pliant to Man, concluding, according to Vanderpool (1973) that a better way is "an honest recognition that aid will not come from gods-who are human creations-hut through loving kindness shared with friends." (p.195)

Writer Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) expressed a common argument of post-1850 literature in his belief that humans had become slaves to the moral limitations and conventions of Christianity. He concluded that Darwinian evolution was our liberator, permitting mankind's mind to roam freely and build a society based on the laws of nature, not the shackles of myth (Vanderpool 1973, p.195).

   Darwin's Theory and the New Society

That Darwin's work brought about a revolution in society was recognized in the late 1800s. T. H. Huxley in an essay in his book Darwinia, originally published in 1871, concluded that the Origin of Species "has worked as complete a revolution in biology as the Principia did in astronomy-and it has done so because, in the words of Helmholtz, it contains `essentially new creative thought."' One of the better documented studies of the impact of evolution on our world view, and thus our society, is The Death of Adam; Evolution and Its Impact On Western Thought by John C. Greene. Greene, an historian, described the "tremendous revolution in human thought which took place in the interval between John Ray's The Wisdom of God Manifest in the Works of the Creation (1691) and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871). Although the focus of Greene's work is on how the dominant world view in science shifted from a creationist to a naturalistic perspective, he also covers the implications of this new world view on society, including our view of ourselves as reflected in psychology and sociology as well as in literature.

Showing the relationship between the acceptance of evolution and changes in literature is not a difficult thing to do. Contrast, for example, the works of Shakespeare with the modern works of Stephen King. The weakness of Shakespeare's heroes was sometimes highlighted as a strength, not always the occasion of their downfall. Often Shakespeare's purpose seems to be to show that the strong and powerful were wrong and evil while the good were the victims of the powerful as in Romeo and Juliet. Some that were strong in the Darwinian sense were shown to be weak in a very important way. The handicapped, the misfits, and others were often pictured more favorably than they are in modern literature. As Wright (1983) notes, when persons with some handicap, even if minor, are featured in modern literature, often they are featured in a special role, and the handicap has some special significance to the story.

Until recently the handicapped, if present at all, were denigrated, stereotyped, objects of horror, made fun of; or otherwise demeaned. Not only is there a conspicuous lack of handicapped persons in fictional literature, there is also a scarcity of normal individuals with normal weaknesses in hero roles. Male characters are often fearless to the extreme, displaying superhuman abilities in all life areas. They show little emotion and human sensitivity, except possibly when romancing women. Even then their humanity is not genuine, but only a ploy to satisfy their ego or sex drive. This is in contrast to the pre-1850 literature which featured few super heroes but many heroes who triumphed in weakness-consider Don Quixote, for example.

Examples of the Darwinian superman are seen in the novels of Jack London. In his Call of the Wild, the principal character, Buck, is a "Rambo" dog who is the undisputed leader among a pack of dogs. The dog is purchased by two French Canadians, men who were fair hut also harsh, just as natural selection is fair (the strong are consistently favored) but also harsh (this favoring is a must for progress). The harshness of nature is also vividly emphasized: the dogs, people and weather in Alaska were all merciless. When one of the dogs lost a fight with another dog, it was torn to pieces in a totally heartless way. When Buck was hungry he "stole" food, and the weaker dogs were destroyed in fair but ruthless struggles in which the most fit triumphed. Buck soon developed an enemy-a dog called Spitz who was the lead dog in the pack that pulled the sled. After a power play, Buck proved his superiority by killing Spitz. After that, Buck refused to be harnessed until he was given the lead position-he bad proved his superiority and when finally put in the top spot, he became the best lead dog the men ever had. He was the strongest and fittest, and the other dogs knew this, thus obeyed him.

We would expect that the theory of evolution would figure prominently in this story of nature and the wild, and it does. The most direct reference is when Buck dreamed about his "past," he saw a "hairy man who hunted with a club." and heard the howling of the wolves in the background, the call of the wild. In his dream Buck makes friends with the wolves, the animals who were "his evolutionary ancestors." The Americans and Canadians were pictured as civilized, but the Superman, caveman complex still dominated them. Many of the Indians, in contrast, were clearly primitive. On one trip away from the camp, Buck had killed a great bull moose. Proud of his superdog achievement, he returned back to the camp. Upon arriving, he immediately spotted several dogs that were killed. At the center of the camp, be saw Indians dancing around the bodies of both the dead dogs and the dead partners of his master. At the river, he found the corpse of his master, his body was filled with arrows. Filled with rage, he attacked the Indians, killing some and scattering the rest. After this event, he forever broke his ties with man, and rejoined his "brothers in the wild," the packs of neighboring Wolves.

Magill (1958, p.664) conducles that many of the literary productions of Jack London openly reflected the ideas of social Darwinist writers, including Herbert Spencer and Frederick Nietzsche. Magill also noted that London loved to exalt both the super-hero and violence, both which are reflected "in the very titles of some of his later hooks," such as the Strength of the Strong and The Abysmal Brute (1958, p. 665). London became very wealthy from his books, which bought him an enormous ranch, yachts, and such. He also openly bragged about his many affairs with young Hollywood starlets. At the age of forty, on November 22 1916, he committed suicide at his Santa Rosa, California ranch.

Many writers were very open about their beliefs regarding natural selection and Darwinian evolution. George Bernard Shaw in the preface to his Man and Superman stated, "Being cowards, we defeat natural selection under the cover of philanthropy: being sluggards, we neglect artificial selection under cover of delicacy and morality." Man and Superman, originally published in 1903, is not the only work in which Shaw brazenly related this philosophy. He states that he used drama as a device, "a trick" in his words, to convey to the public his social, political, and economic philosophy Man and Superman, Shaw's most philosophical play, is primarily about the war between the sexes. In it the survival of the fittest theme is prominent. In this story, Tanner, a social philosopher and a principal character of the play, represents "the good man" yet is unsuccessful in defending his chastity among other things. A scheming female, who is his intellectual inferior but his instinctual superior, wins. Tanner represents the cultivation of the intellect-the idea that only by dispassionately exercising the intellect can men discover their purpose in nature and fulfill it. Women, however, represent passion, and the desire to propagate.

A highly successful play, many critics regard this as one of Shaw's most important works. Its theme is central to his philosophy, and clearly reflects his evolutionary world view. Tanner also represents mans unceasing creative urge bestowed upon him by evolution to improve the world as well as himself. This theme was developed further in many of Shaw's plays, especially Back To Methuselah. In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature as a reward for his efforts as a social reformer His influence today is world wide, and his plays are still performed and most of his books are still in print. Incredibly prolific in his long life (he died at the age of 94 on November 2, 1950) the standard edition of his works comes to thirty-six volumes.

   Drawing Some Conclusions

Presumably, both the writings and the public reading interests were changed by the new world view influenced by Darwin. If the works written in the 1600s were published today as new books, most would be marketing disasters. Even historical novels, although they supposedly took place hundreds of years ago, tend to feature the modern super-hero theme. Writers today are influenced by past writing successes, and what is successful is to some degree influenced by those individuals who are in a position to judge. The book of the month club and book review organizations tend to be extremely important in affecting a book's likely success.

The total cause and effect situation is not our focus here, only the fact that clear changes in literature have occurred since Darwin, and that much of this change is due to world-view revolutions caused by science. Future literature patterns will also likewise be affected by future scientific advancements. Already, books that deal with, or at least include as a part of the story, gene manipulation therapy and related topics, are becoming very popular In the novel of the future, those characters with technologicM know-how may be more apt to become heroes as opposed to those who are physically superior, as already tends to be true of much contemporary popular literature.


Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex; The Works of Charles Darwin. New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1896 (1st ed. by AMS Press, 1972).
Greene, John C. The Death of Adam. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1959.
Huxley, Thomas H. Dorwinta. New York, NY: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1968.
Magill, Frank N. ted., Master Plot Encyclopedia of World Authors. New York, NY: Salem Press 1958.
Thrall, William Flint and Addison Hibbard. A Handbook to Literature; With on Outline of Literary History English and American. New York, NY; The Odyssey Press, 1916.
Vanderpool, Harold Y. Darwin and Darwinism; Revolutionary Insights Concerning Man, Nature, Religion and Society. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1971.
Wright, Beatrice A. Physical Disability-A Psycho Social Approach. 2nd editian, New York, NY: Harper and Rowe Publishers, 1981.

"Biological Evolution and Modern Literature"
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